Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century

by P. W. Singer


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A military expert reveals how science fiction is fast becoming reality on the battlefield, changing not just how wars are fought, but also the politics, economics, laws, and ethics that surround war itself

P. W. Singer's previous two books foretold the rise of private military contractors and the advent of child soldiers' predictions that proved all too accurate. Now, he explores the greatest revolution in military affairs since the atom bomb-the advent of robotic warfare.

We are just beginning to see a massive shift in military technology that threatens to make the stuff of I,Robot and the Terminator all too real. More than seven- thousand robotic systems are now in Iraq. Pilots in Nevada are remotely killing terrorists in Afghanistan. Scientists are debating just how smart-and how lethal-to make their current robotic prototypes. And many of the most renowned science fiction authors are secretly consulting for the Pentagon on the next generation.

Blending historic evidence with interviews from the field, Singer vividly shows that as these technologies multiply, they will have profound effects on the front lines as well as on the politics back home. Moving humans off the battlefield makes wars easier to start, but more complex to fight. Replacing men with machines may save some lives, but will lower the morale and psychological barriers to killing. The 'warrior ethos,' which has long defined soldiers' identity, will erode, as will the laws of war that have governed military conflict for generations.

Paradoxically, these new technologies will also bring war to our doorstep. As other nations and even terrorist organizations start to build or buy their own robotic weapons, the robot revolution could undermine America's military preeminence. While his analysis is unnerving, there's an irresistible gee-whiz quality to the innovations Singer uncovers. Wired for War travels from Iraq to see these robots in combat to the latter-day 'skunk works' in America's suburbia, where tomorrow's technologies of war are quietly being designed. In Singer's hands, the future of war is as fascinating as it is frightening.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594201981
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/22/2009
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dr Singer is considered one the world's leading experts on changes in 21st century warfare. He has written for the full range of major media and journals, including Boston Globe, L.A. Times, New Times, amongst many others. He is also the author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry and Children at War. He is also a founder and organizer of the US-Islamic World Forum, a global conference that brings together leaders from across the US and the Muslim world.

Read an Excerpt




Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.



Because robots are frakin’ cool.

That’s the short answer to why someone would spend four years researching and writing a book on new technologies and war. The long answer is a bit more complex.

As my family will surely attest, I was a bit of an odd kid. All kids develop their hobbies and even fixations, be it baseball cards or Barbie dolls. Indeed, I have yet to meet a six-year-old boy who did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things dinosaur. For me growing up, it was war. I could be more polite and say military history, but it was really just war. In saying the same about his childhood, the great historian John Keegan wrote, “It is not a phrase to be written, still less spoken with any complacency.” But it is true nonetheless.

Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that the generations before me had all served in the military. They left several lifetimes’ worth of artifacts hidden around the house for me to pilfer and play with, whether it was my dad’s old military medals and unit insignia, which I would take out and pin to my soccer jersey, or the model of the F-4 Phantom jet fighter that my uncle had flown over Vietnam, which I would run up and down the stairs on its missions to bomb Legoland.

But the greatest treasure trove of all was at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather passed away when I was six, too young to remember him as much more than the kindly man whom we would visit at the nursing home. But I think he may have influenced this aspect of me the most.

Chalmers Rankin Carr, forever just “Granddaddy” to me, was a U.S. Navy captain who served in World War II. Like all those from what we now call “the Greatest Generation,” he was one of the giants who saved the world. Almost every family gathering would include some tale from his or my grandmother’s (“Maw Maw” to us grandkids) experiences at war or on the home front.

It’s almost a cliché to say, but the one that stands out is the Pearl Harbor story; although, as with all things in my family, it comes with a twist. On December 7, 1941, my grandfather was serving in the Pacific Fleet on a navy transport ship. For three months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the family didn’t hear any word from him and worried for the worst. When his ship finally came back to port (it had actually sailed out of Pearl Harbor just two days before the attack), he immediately called home to tell his wife (my grandmother) and the rest of his family that he was okay. There were only two problems: he had called collect, and that side of my family is Scotch-Irish. No one would accept the charges. While my grandfather cursed the phone operator’s ear off, in the way that only a sailor can, on the other end the family explained to the operator that since he was calling, he must be alive. So there was no reason to waste money on such a luxury as a long-distance phone call.

Granddaddy’s study was filled with volume after volume of great books, on everything from the history of the U.S. Navy to biographies of Civil War generals. I would often sneak off to this room, pull out one of the volumes, and lose myself in the past. These books shaped me then and stay with me now. One of my most prized possessions is an original-edition 1939 Jane’s Fighting Ships that my grandfather received as a gift from a Royal Navy officer, for being part of the crew that shipped a Lend-Lease destroyer to the Brits. As I type these very words, it peers down at me from the shelf above my computer.

My reading fare quickly diverged from that of the other kids at Myers Park Elementary School. A typical afternoon reading was less likely to be exploring how Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, cracked The Case of the Missing Roller Skates than how Audie Murphy, the youngest soldier ever to win the Medal of Honor, went, as he wrote in his autobiography, To Hell and Back. War soon morphed over into the imaginary world that surrounds all kids like a bubble. Other kids went to Narnia, I went to Normandy. While it may have looked like a normal Diamondback dirt bike, my bicycle was the only one in the neighborhood that mounted twin .50-caliber machine guns on the handlebars, to shoot down any marauding Japanese Zeros that dared to ambush me on my way to school each morning. I still remember my mother yelling at me for digging a five-foot-deep foxhole in our backyard when I was ten years old. She clearly failed to understand the importance of setting up a proper line of defense.

I certainly can’t claim to have been a normal kid, but in my defense, you also have to remember the context. To be so focused on war was somewhat easier in that period. It was the Reagan era and the cold war had heated back up. The Russians wouldn’t come to our Olympics and we wouldn’t go to theirs, the military was cool again, and we had no questions about whether we were the good guys. Most important, as a young Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen taught us in Red Dawn, not only were the Commies poised to parachute right into our schools, but it was likely us kids who would have to beat them back.

What I find interesting, and a sign of the power of Hollywood’s marketing machine, is that usually some artifact from science fiction is in the background of these memories, intertwined with the history. For example, when I think back to my childhood bedroom, there are the model warships from my grandfather’s era lined up on display, but also Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca peeking up from my Star Wars bedsheets.

As most of science fiction involved some good guy battling some bad guy in a world far, far away, the two memes of my fantasy world went together fairly well. In short, your author was the kind of little boy to whom a stick was not a mere piece of wood, but the makings of a machine gun or a lightsaber that could save the world from both Hitler and Darth Vader.


I look back on these memories with some embarrassment, but also guilt. Of course, even then, I knew that people die in war and many soldiers didn’t come home, but they were always only the buddy of the hero, oddly enough usually from Brooklyn in most World War II movies. The reality of war had no way of sinking in.

It was not until years later that I truly understood the human costs of war. I remember crossing a jury-rigged bridge into Mostar, a town in Bosnia that saw some of the worst fighting in the Yugoslav civil war. I was there as part of a fact-finding mission on the UN peacekeeping operation. Weeks of back-and-forth fighting had turned block after block of factories and apartments on the riverfront into a mass of hollowed-out hulks. The pictures of World War II’s Stalingrad in an old book on my grandfather’s shelf had sprung up to surround and encompass me. The books never had any smell other than dust, but here, even well after the battles, a burnt, fetid scent still hung in the air. Down the river were the remnants of an elegant 500-year-old bridge, which had been blasted to pieces by Serb artillery. The people, though, were the ones who drove it home. “Haunted” is the only adjective I can think of to describe the faces of the refugees.

The standout memory, though, was of a local provincial governor we met with. A man alleged to have orchestrated mass killing and ethnic cleansing campaigns for which he would soon after be indicted, he sat at an immense wooden desk, ominously framed by two nationalist paramilitary (and hence illegal) flags. But he banally talked about his plans to build up the tourism industry after the war. He explained that the war had destroyed many of the factories and cleaned out whole villages. So on the positive side, the rivers were now clear and teeming with fish. Forget the war crimes or the refugees, he argued, if only the United States and United Nations would wise up and give him money, the package tourists would be there in a matter of weeks.

This paradox between the “good” wars that I had fought in my youth and the seamy underside of war in the twenty-first century has since been the thread running through my writing. During that same trip, I met my first private military contractors, a set of former U.S. Army officers, who were working in Sarajevo for a private company. Their firm wasn’t selling widgets or even weapons, but rather the very military skills of the soldiers themselves. This contradiction between our ideal of military service and the reality of a booming new industry of private companies leasing out soldiers for hire became the subject of my first book, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. During the research, I was struck by another breakdown of the traditional model of who was supposed to be at war. In West Africa, the main foes of these new private soldiers were rebel bands, mostly made up of children. Many of these tiny soldiers had been abducted from their schools and homes. For me as a child, war had merely been a matter of play; for these children, war was the only way to survive. My next book, Children at War, tried to tell their story, in a way that didn’t just tug at heartstrings, but also explained the causes and effects of child soldiers, such that we might finally act to end this terrible practice.

This contradiction of war as we imagine it to be, versus how it really is, isn’t just the matter of a young boy growing up and putting his lightsaber away. It is part of something bigger that has haunted humanity from its very start.

One of the original sins of our species is its inability to live at peace. From the very beginning of human history, conflicts over food, territory, riches, power, and prestige have been constant. The earliest forms of human organization were clans that first united for hunting, but soon also for fighting with other clans over the best hunting grounds. The story of the dawn of civilization is a story of war, as these clans transformed into larger tribes and then to city-states and empires. War was both a cause and effect of broader social change. From war sprung the very first specializations of labor, the resulting stratification into economic classes, and the creation of politics itself.

The result is that much of what is written in human history is simply a history of warfare. It is a history that often shames us. And it should. War is not just merely human destruction, but the most extreme of horror and waste wrapped together. Our great religions view war as perhaps the ultimate transgression. In the Bible, for example, King David was prohibited from building his holy Temple, because, as God told him, “You are a warrior who has shed blood” (1 Chronicles 28). The ancient prophets’ ideal vision of the future is a time when we “will learn warfare no more” (Isaiah 2:4). As one religious scholar put it, “War is a sign of disobedience and sinfulness. War is not intended by God. All human beings are made in the image of God and they are precious and unique.”

The same disdain for war was held by our great intellectuals. Thucydides, the founder of both the study of history as well as the science of international relations, described war as a punishment springing from man’s hubris. It is our arrogance chastised. Two thousand years later, Freud similarly described it as emanating from our Thanatos, the part of our psyche that lives out evil.

Yet for such a supposed abomination, we sure do seem to be obsessed with war. From architecture to the arts, war’s horrors have fed the heights of human creativity. Many of our great works of literature, arts, and science either are inspired by war or are reactions to it, from the founding epics of literature like Gilgamesh and the Iliad to the great painters of surrealism to the very origins of the fields of chemistry and physics.

War then, appears in many more guises than the waste of human destruction that we know it to be. War has been described as a testing ground for nobility, the only true place where man’s “arête” (excellence) could be won. In the Iliad, the master narrative for all of Western literature, for example, “fighting is where man will win glory.” From Herodotus to Hegel, war is described as a test of people’s vitality and even one culture’s way of life versus another. War is thus often portrayed in our great books as a teacher—a cruel teacher who reveals both our strengths and faults. Virtues are taught through stories of war from Homer to Shakespeare, while evils to avoid are drawn out by war in stories ranging from Aeschylus to Naipaul.

War is granted credit for all sorts of great social change. Democracy came from the phalanx and citizen rowers of the ancient Greeks, while the story of modern-day civil rights would not be the same without Rosie the Riveter or the African American soldiers of the Red Ball Express in World War II.

War then is depicted as immoral, yet humanity has always found out-clauses to explain its necessity and celebration. The same religions that see violence as a sin also licensed wars of crusade and jihad. And it is equally the case in politics. We repeatedly urge war as the means to either spread or defeat whatever ideology is in vogue at the time, be it enlightenment, imperialism, communism, fascism, democracy, or even simply “to end all wars.”

This paradox continues in American politics today. Avoidance of war has been a traditional tenet of our foreign policy. Yet we have been at war for most of our nation’s history and many of our greatest heroes are warriors. We are simultaneously leaders of weapons development, being the creator of the atomic bomb, and the founders of arms control, which seeks its ban.

We are repulsed by the idea of war, and yet entranced by it. In my mind, there are two core reasons for humankind’s almost obsessive-compulsive disorder. The first is that war brings out the most powerful emotions that define what it is to be human. Bravery, honor, love, leadership, pity, selflessness, comradeship, commitment, charity, sacrifice, hate, fear, and loss all find their definitive expressions in the fires of war. They reach their ultimate highs and lows, and, in so doing, war is almost addictive to human culture. As William James put it, “The horror is the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis.”

The other reason that war so consumes us is that for all humanity’s advancement, we just can’t seem to get away from it. After nearly every war, we cite the immense lessons we learned that will prevent that calamity from repeating itself. We say over and over, “Never again.” Yet the reality is “ever again.”


Table of Contents

Wired For WarAuthor's Note: Why a Book on Robots and War?

Part One: The Change We Are Creating

1. Introduction: Scenes from a Robot War
2. Smart Bombs, Norma Jeane, and Defecating Ducks: A Short History of Robotics
3. Robotics for Dummies
4. To Infinity and Beyond: The Power of Exponential Trends
5. Coming Soon to a Battlefield Near You: The Next Wave of Warbots
6. Always in the Loop? The Arming and Autonomy of Robots
7. Robotic Gods: Our Machine Creators
8. What Inspires Them: Science Fiction's Impact on Science Reality
9. The Refuseniks: The Roboticists Who Just Say No

Part Two: What Change Is Creating For Us

10. The Big Cebrowski and the Real RMA: Thinking About Revolutionary Technologies
11. "Advanced" Warfare: How We Might Fight with Robots
12. Robots That Don't Like Apple Pi: How the U.S. Could Lose the Unmanned Revolution
13. Open-Source Warfare: College Kids, Terrorists, and Other New Users of Robots at War
14. Losers and Luddites: The Changing Battlefields Robots Will Fight On and the New Electronic Sparks of War
15. The Psychology of Warbots
16. YouTube War: The Public and Its Unmanned Wars
17. Changing the Experience of War and the Warrior
18. Command and Control . . . Alt-Delete: New Technologies and Their Effect on Leadership
19. Who Let You in the War? Technology and the New Demographics of Conflict
20. Digitizing the Laws of War and Other Issues of (Un)Human Rights
21. A Robot Revolt? Talking About Robot Ethics
22. Conclusion: The Duality of Robots and Humans


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